Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith) is drunk, abusive, sweaty, “hand-to-mouth tumbleweed” of a man we first see curled up asleep in a small Arkansas jail. He is approached by Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) a fledgling reporter for her uncle’s radio station, who asks him “to spin a yarn or sing a song”, for her man-on-the-street program A Face in the Crowd. His response speaks volumes about his true character.
“What do I get out of this? I mean Mr. Me, myself, and I?”
When the sheriff promises to release him the next morning if he cooperates, Rhodes has a swift turnabout and slams into the blues on his guitar, bellowing he’ll be a “free man in the morning!” Marcia is intrigued by him and somewhat nervous too. When they catch him hitch-hiking on the road the next day, she instinctively pinches the collar of her blouse together as he leans into her car. Marcia’s uncle sees potential in this wandering minstrel, and offers him a job as a morning personality. Rhodes is reluctant at first, but takes the job when he sees it will earn him enough scratch to get a plane ticket to Florida. Within a week, his folksy wisdom, songs, and stories from his fictional home of Riddle have made him radio gold, and he’s the darling of the housefrau set. Marcia has christened him “Lonesome Rhodes” and he takes the name to heart, slowly realizing that his home-grown allure has a way of swaying people to his will. Before long, he’s offered his first TV job in Memphis, then a national TV show in New York. He revitalizes the image of the show’s sponsor, Vitajex, from a bland energy pill into a libido miracle. But as his ego and popularity inflates, TV stardom isn’t enough; he has his sights on higher power. Marcia is both attracted and repulsed by Larry’s animal magnetism, and is torn between her love for him and her horror at the monster he is becoming. She realizes he is a force that must be stopped.
Director Elia Kazan chose newcomer Andy Griffith to play Rhodes. Up to this point, Griffith had been a stand-up comedian and an ‘aw shucks’ sort of yokel character on Broadway in No Time for Sergeants. This was a startling departure for him, and if you’ve only seen Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor, you will be awed by the gritty, disturbing, and coarse layers of Rhodes that Griffith peels away. Rhodes acts like a sweet ‘aw shucks’ character on the surface, but he’s truly a manipulative, dirty, thieving, sexist bastard, qualities his public would never believe. His laugh is both ebullient and terrifying, as his intentions are anything but honorable. Yet Griffith also gives Lonesome small, genuine moments of anxiety and real loneliness, and here you actually feel compassion for him; quite an accomplishment for a first starring screen role. Patricia Neal as Marcia is so bright and exuberant when we first meet her, only to become a sad victim of her own creation, longing to escape his influence. We can see her heart crack in her soulful eyes. Walter Matthau is sharp wit who writes blocking for Rhodes, and you know he loves Marcia as much as he hates Rhodes. The cast also includes Anthony Franciosa, as Rhodes’ slimy office boy-turned-agent, Kay Medford in comedic turn as Mrs. Rhodes, and, in her first role, Lee Remick as Betty Lou Fleckham, a barely legal baton twirler and Rhodes devotee.
Looking back on A Face in the Crowd, it is surprisingly prescient in its view of celebrity worship, and more importantly, how popular culture influences mind sets and politics. When Rhodes is employed by General Hainsworth to make over the image of Senator Fuller it could be a playbook for any current presidential contender. (The concept of candidate as product is in full swing here, as a candidate must be someone you don’t necessarily respect, but LOVE). Yet the most frightening aspect of this drama is how easily this deceiving, charismatic character can influence his followers. Watch as the studio audience hypnotically sings along with the Vitajex jingle, how a teenage baton twirler literally leans over backward for him, and how the public sees Lonesome as a true “saintly man”. This aspect of AFITC makes it as timely today, if not more so, that it was in 1957. Lonesome Rhodes would be a natural ‘reality’ star today, televangelist, or a loud-mouth co-host with Kelly Ripa, not to mention what he’d do with Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. This tale rips into American gullibility and weakness for shiny things. We always want something new and exciting, even if it’s as phony and shallow as the latest reality star to hit the airwaves. The Vitajex montage in the movie isn’t too far from the infomercials that fill the empty spaces in 24 hour programming today. How far we’ve come since then…or have we? The line from Fleetwood Mac’s song “Dreams” comes to mind: “Players only love you when they’re playing”. Sadly, there will always be players like Lonesome Rhodes.
SNACKING GAME: Munch or imbibe whenever you hear the word ‘Morning’ or whenever Lonesome gives his signature laugh.
Oh, a guitar beats a woman every time. I never have seen a woman I can trust like this old guitar. Love my Mama guitar. Never asks me for money or goes cheatin’ around when I ain’t lookin’. If she gets a little sour, why I just give her a little twist like so and we’re right in tune together.
Thanks for them pies, gals, you gonna spile me!
Shucks, Mister, I’m just a country boy.
How’d you like to get acquainted in the mornin’?
You cold-fish respectable girls. Inside you crave the same thing as the rest of them
Bye! I’ll think of you good people! (Boy, am I glad to shake that dump)
(addressing his first TV audience about a homeless woman he met) If it don’t move you the way I think it will, you’re just a bunch of big city pickle hearts. An I’m gonna pack up my one shirt and the Bible my daddy give me, an my cigar-box guitar an’ I’ll get me on home to Riddle.
I get extra hungry in the morning.
Where I’m from, if a fella looks too dignified, we figure he’s lookin” to steal your watch!
I pasted your picture on the ceiling over my bed. You’re the first thing I see in the morning!
Vita Jex-Jex-Jex makes you go-go-go!
Senator, how you gonna get this bush monkey to vote for you?
This whole country’s just like my flock of sheep…they’re mine! I own them. They think like I do. Only they’re more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for them!
I’m gonna make them love me!
- Andy Griffith as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes
- Patricia Neal as Marcia Jeffries
- Anthony Franciosa as Joey DePalma
- Walter Matthau as Mel Miller
- Lee Remick as Betty Lou Fleckum
- Percy Waram as Gen. Haynesworth
- Paul McGrath as Macey
- Rod Brasfield as Beanie
- Marshall Neilan as Senator Worthington Fuller
- Alexander Kirkland as Jim Collier
- Charles Irving as Luffler
- Howard Smith as J.B. Jeffries
- Kay Medford as First Mrs. Rhodes
- Big Jeff Bess as Sheriff Big Jeff Bess
- Henry Sharp as Abe Steiner
- Cara Williams as Nurse
- Bennett Cerf, Faye Emerson, Betty Furness, Virginia Graham, Burl Ives, Mitch Miller, John Cameron Swayze, Mike Wallace, Earl Wilson, and Walter Winchell in cameo appearances as themselves